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PA officials: If Israel stops unilateral actions for Saudi deal, we’ll stop ours

The Palestinian Authority wants a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia to be conditioned on Israel halting unilateral actions in the West Bank, and is prepared to halt some of its own unilateral actions in exchange, two senior Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel.

Israeli unilateral actions include settlement construction, military raids in Palestinian cities and settler violence against Palestinians, one of the Palestinian officials said Friday, adding that the PA would be prepared to abandon the investigations it is pursuing against Israel in forums such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice in exchange for the curtailment of such activities. (It’s not clear, however, whether the already-opened probes into Israel can be rolled back at this point.)

“There should be mutual obligations,” one Palestinian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We need to see the unilateral steps stop in order to give a political horizon for a future between Israelis and Palestinians. Without one, there’s no telling what could happen tomorrow.”

Last month, a US official, a PA official and a senior Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel that Ramallah is seeking “irreversible” steps that will advance its bid for statehood in the context of the US-brokered Saudi-Israeli normalization talks.

Those officials said the PA proposals have included US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PLO as a terror organization, the transfer of West Bank territory from Israeli to Palestinian control, and the demolition of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

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The two Palestinian officials speaking last week confirmed that the PA has extended other proposals but insisted that a mutual halt to unilateral measures is the main formula being stressed by Ramallah in its talks with Saudi and US officials.

A construction site for new housing in the settlement of Shiloh, in the West Bank, on June 21, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This can happen outside of the Saudi context,” one of the PA officials said.

The fresh details provided by PA officials regarding their approach toward a potential agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia further highlight that Ramallah is willing to suffice with far less than statehood, which has long been seen as its condition for backing moves by additional Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel.

The Abraham Accords negotiations of 2020 unfolded without the knowledge of the Palestinians, and Ramallah came out bitterly against the agreements, causing rifts in its ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain that have still not completely healed.

With the talks over a potential deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia taking place more openly, the PA is engaging with the Saudis as well as the brokers in the Biden administration, and sent a senior delegation to Riyadh earlier this month to discuss the issue.

One of the Palestinian officials said that the PA doesn’t oppose Saudi Arabia’s talks with the US, noting that they largely have to do with the US-Saudi bilateral relationship.

Indeed, Riyadh is looking to sign a NATO-like defense pact with the US, to purchase top-notch weaponry from Washington, and to obtain support for a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil, US and Israeli officials familiar with the matter have told The Times of Israel.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (R) escorts US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C) as they arrive for a meeting with GCC Ministers at the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh on June 7, 2023. (Photo by AHMED YOSRI / POOL / AFP)

“But we also delivered our demands to the Saudis and from the Americans. We want them to include the Palestinian cause in their talks with the Americans and the Israelis,” one of the Palestinian officials said Friday.

“Saudi Arabia has agreed completely to our demands. They told us that they are not brokers between us and the Israelis; rather, they are our partners and that we (the Palestinians and the Saudis) are on the same side,” the official added.

Both PA officials were careful to talk respectfully of “our Saudi brothers” and expressed confidence that Riyadh would take the Palestinians into account when negotiating with the Biden administration.

Ramallah is now waiting to hear back from the Saudis and the Americans, the PA officials said, adding that they expected an update when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Jerusalem and Ramallah next month. Washington has not yet finalized the details of the trip.

During the Palestinians’ visit earlier this month, Saudi leaders assured the delegation that Riyadh “will not abandon” the Palestinian cause as it weighs normalization with Israel, according to an Arab and a US official.

Follow-up conversations between US, Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi officials took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week, but Riyadh will likely need several months to study the issue before raising specific Palestinian-related demands in its talks with the Biden administration, the US and the Arab official said at the time.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh (third from right) meets with a US delegation on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 21, 2023. (Wafa)

An opportunity to address prisoner payments?

One of the Palestinian officials said that meetings on the UNGA sidelines were productive but did not lead to any major breakthroughs.

Both Palestinian officials said the US used its meetings with Palestinian officials to again raise its objection to Ramallah’s social welfare payments, which include stipends to terrorists and the families of slain attackers.

The policy has been pilloried by critics as incentivizing terror, but Ramallah has long defended the payments as a form of social welfare and necessary compensation for victims of what they say is Israel’s callous military justice system in the West Bank.

An official familiar with the issue said amending the policy would make it easier for the US to advance other Palestinian demands in the talks with Saudi Arabia.

One of the Palestinian officials said the prisoner payments are something Ramallah would be happy to discuss in negotiations with Israel.

“We are open-minded and prepared to negotiate all of the details, but nobody should instruct us how to deal with our internal issue,” the official said, insisting that the PA has a right to provide support to families in need.

Saudi Arabia has worked to deepen its engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid the normalization negotiations. Last week, it unveiled an initiative developed with the European Union aimed at reinvigorating the peace process. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan began serving as Riyadh’s first-ever nonresident ambassador to Palestine as well as its first-ever nonresident consul general to Jerusalem.